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Gone Rouge: The History of Lipstick and the Color Red


Photographer Vikram Gawde

“Red can connote everything from desire, to danger, to power,” says Christian Louboutin. Using red on the lips can be traced back to the women of Mesopotamia, who adorned their lips with crushed semi-precious stones, and Cleopatra, who used crushed beetles and ants to create the perfect crimson for lips, eyes, and cheeks.  The Egyptians also used a mixture of focus-algin, iodine, and bromine mannite to color their lips – but this concoction could prove to be lethal and, legend has it, led to the coining of the term “kiss of death.”

The Romans used red vermilion, derived from the powdered mineral cinnabar, as a cheek stain – but since it’s derived from mercury, it can be toxic to humans. The Ancient Greeks opted for a safer path and crushed mulberries to add a flush of color to their complexions. Meanwhile, the Chinese began to paint their fingernails red. Red was seen as a status symbol by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and the lower classes were forbidden from wearing the bright color.


Actress Elizabeth Taylor as Queen Cleopatra. Alamy

“Wearing lipstick has always been an emotional and visual experience, from the defiant red lips of the suffragettes to the alluring yet powerful pouts of the 1980s supermodels,” says Charlotte Tilbury. During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England made bright shades of rouge popular. Before then, medieval Europeans believed that makeup – particularly red lips – warned of death. In the early 20th century, Queen Victoria frowned upon the wearing of makeup but the young women of the day were not deterred, and early feminists started painting their lips crimson as a symbol of emancipation.


Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland. Alamy

During the second world war, lipstick was the only cosmetic not rationed, as British prime minister Winston Churchill believed it boosted morale. The decades after the war saw lipstick continue to dominate the cosmetics market, with movie sirens from Egypt to Hollywood favoring a bold pout. Samia Gamal danced her away across the silver screen with a bold flush of blush, and it is said that 98% of women in the US were wearing lipstick by that time, probably encouraged by Hollywood sirens like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.


Actress Marylin Monroe. Alamy

In the following decade, women became more experimental with their makeup colors but instead focused on eyeshadow. It would be two more decades before the bold look came into vogue, with women layering blush across their cheeks and up to the temples. Then in the minimalist 1990s, the look was natural, with a focus on flushed, rosy cheeks.

In 2020, red has cemented its status as a timeless accent, with a vivid red lip or nail the epitome of chic. The way the color is worn has also evolved over the last few seasons – 2015 saw the rise of crimson eyeshadow, now seen as a mainstream look – then came blush swept all the way up to the temples and now countless FW20 shows called on red in every shade for the ultimate power pout. From Dries Van Noten to Oscar De La Renta, lipstick followed no rules. Precision application is now a thing of the past.

Oscar de la Renta_CAN0433

Backstage at Oscar De La Renta F/W20. Indigital

“To me, red represents strength and confidence,” says celebrity makeup artist Hung Vanngo. At last year’s Golden Globe awards, Margot Robbie, Claire Foy, and Zoë Kravitz chose red makeup looks to complement their black #TimesUp outfits, wearing the color across eyes and lips. “When a woman wears red lips, it means she is confident. She is taking control of how others perceive her, and that message is very powerful. It is also a fierce signal to say, ‘Look at my face,’” says Louboutin.

Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia

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